Spooks And Spies On The African Continent

Have you ever met a spy? Have you ever been mistaken for an agent of a foreign power? If the answer to either question is yes, you probably don’t want to answer the question. My answer, if you must know… is ‘maybe’ 😀

cia feetYears ago, while living on the African continent, in a country that shall remain nameless, I met a man. I was sitting in the lobby of a fabulous hotel when I locked eyes with a dignified-looking man. Why was I there? Would you believe me if I told you that I was out of cash and that fancy hotels are one of the few places you can use a credit card in a third world country?

So there I was, enjoying a drink with a friend, when I first saw this stranger, and he caught my eye because it was evident that we were both of Hispanic descent. Finding another Hispanic in California is an everyday thing, but in Africa, not so much. He was dressed in a suit, and was sitting with other men in suits. One of the men next to him looked a bit like Mr. T, with a gold ring on almost every finger. We smiled at each other, one of us spoke (I no longer remember who), and suddenly we were in deep conversation. My new acquaintance was from Havana, but now living in one of the West African countries. He told me he was a doctor for the military, and had come to town for a conference. We chatted late into the evening, and when we were done, Dr. Cuba (that’s not his real name of course), went outside the hotel with me so I could get a cab. Suddenly, he looked a bit concerned, and when I asked him why, he told me that he wasn’t supposed to go outside the hotel grounds without a bodyguard. Since the country we were in isn’t known for being dangerous, I was a bit puzzled as to why a doctor would need a bodyguard, but I didn’t ask anymore questions. We made plans to meet the next evening for dinner, and I went home.

african kingThe next day, I went back to the fancy hotel, taking my friend (I’ll call her Nina) with me. We sat in the lobby with Dr. Cuba and Mr. T, to have a few drinks. While we were sitting there, a very distinguished African gentleman came by to say “hello”. He gave Nina a smile, and said something about how she should come visit his country. “Who is that?”, I asked Dr. Cuba. He replied, “Oh, that’s the brother of the king of Swaziland. He’s got about 20 wives.” Nina’s ears perked up. She started going on about how she’d love to go visit Swaziland. I had visions of her becoming a harem girl, and I worried how I would ever explain it to the school where she worked and I volunteered.

We moved to the restaurant and talked about family. Dr. Cuba had 2 daughters in Havana, and they were big fans of Haagen-Daas ice cream. “I have it flown in once a week from the Dominican Republic, there’s no place to get it in Cuba.”, he said. Let me tell you, the brother of the king of Swaziland doesn’t impress me much, but having ice cream flown in weekly from another country, that has to cost a fortune! “So, what exactly do you do for the military?” I asked Dr. Cuba. “I can’t tell you. But I promise it’s not illegal or immoral.”, he replied. And then he added, “What about you? How come I never see you alone? You always have a bodyguard.” I laughed. Did he think I was a spy or something?

IceCreamAs I pondered the cost of planes, fuel and ice cream, we were interrupted by Mr. T, who explained that Dr. Cuba was needed elsewhere. The Dr. excused himself from the table and was gone for a long time. When I asked him where he’d been, he replied that he’d been to see the general of the South African military. “He was sick. I gave him a shot.”, said Dr. Cuba. I wasn’t buying it. This is the kind of line James Bond would say to make things sound normal. “I believe you went to see a general,” I replied, “But not because the man was sick.” At that time Dr. Cuba’s country of residence was experiencing political turmoil. There were various factions vying for power, and it was one of those countries where diamonds are illegally obtained, traded or exported. There was a suitcase sitting next to Dr. Cuba, and I began to wonder what was inside it. Secret papers? Instruments of torture? Blood diamonds?

Dr. Cuba asked me what I did at my volunteer job, and I explained that I was creating a computer literacy curriculum, so that teachers and students could learn about computers. “That sounds great.” he said, “If you want to do that in my country, I’ll get you a first class plane ticket and pay you a salary. All you have to do is call me, and it will be waiting for you at the airport.” I was intrigued, but I also wondered if this was a good way to disappear and end up in a body bag somewhere. A few minutes later, several men in suits came up to us and stood in a row. One of the men said “Dr. Cuba, sorry to bother you but I’m on my way to the airport to check you in and I need your passport.” If nothing has alarmed you until now, this should. Regardless of the county, Customs and Immigration tend to be sacred cows that bow to no-one. So hearing that there was a mortal who could bypass airport security lines and walk directly from the tarmac onto the plane… that’s about as impressive as they come.

casper lookingDr. Cuba left shortly afterwards, but he gave me his email address and satellite phone number. The email address was with one of the big free email providers, and his username was “Casper”, followed by some numbers. So, was he a spook (it’s a slang term for spies)? I complained once that he had no excuse for not calling because the satellite phone worked anywhere in the world. He replied that he’d been busy talking to the prince of Oman. You might think he was name dropping, but I think he was probably telling the truth or he would have said the queen of England.

I made this necklace recently, recalling my time in Africa. I call it Serengeti queen. You can find it on my Etsy shop.

I made this necklace recently, recalling my time in Africa. I call it Serengeti queen. You can find it on my Etsy shop.

I never made it to that West African country, though I heard the political situation greatly improved. Eventually, we fell out of touch, so I have no idea where “Casper” is these days. I don’t even know if he’s still alive. Mr. T, for those who weren’t paying attention, was Dr. Cuba’s bodyguard. I hope he has kept Dr. Cuba safe. And I will always wonder what was in that suitcase?!

My Accidental Journey to Paris, Portugal and Beyond … It’s A Small World After All

ticket passportMost of my life has not been planned, it has simply fallen into place. When I was fresh out of college and living in the San Francisco Bay area, I wanted to visit a friend in Chicago. I called the airline to ask about airfare, and was very disappointed (even shocked), to learn that prices had skyrocketed in the last year since I’d left school. “Well,” I asked the ticket agent, in a tone of annoyance, “How much does it cost to go to Paris?!”

I really had no intention of going to Paris. It was mostly a rhetorical question, because in my mind I was thinking that the airfare to Chicago was so expensive, it felt like I should be getting more for my money. But before I could tell the agent that I wasn’t serious, she said, “Please hold, I’ll connect you to the International desk.” The next thing I knew, I was talking to the International desk, and too embarrassed to tell her that I didn’t really want to go to Paris. I picked some dates figuring I’d say “No, thank you”, once she quoted me the fare. “Well, we’ve got a sale right now,” she said. “If you leave before March 15th, you can fly round-trip for $450.” My jaw dropped open. Really?! For $100 more than the cost of going to Chicago, I could go to Paris! The wheels in my mind began to spin… my college roommate lived in Paris, and France was “next door” to Spain, and a “little way” from Portugal (I’ve learned to read maps since then, but at the time I was kinda clueless). I’d never been across the ocean before, and I’d been planning to take a trip anyway, right? Who cares if it’s Paris instead of Chicago? A couple months later I was on my way!

paris postcard pink
Upon arriving in Paris, I learned that most people didn’t understand me in spite of the fact that I spoke French. I became incredibly self-conscious about speaking, and tried to say as little as possible in public. At the home of my friend Caroline in Paris, we had three-way conversations. She spoke to her boyfriend Esteban (who was actually from Argentina) in French. I spoke to him in Spanish. And when I spoke to Caroline, I spoke English. You’d think it was a comedy of errors, but it actually worked out rather well. I took a couple days to get over my jet lag, visited a few museums, drank incredibly expensive coffee, got in trouble for squeezing produce at the grocery store (apparently that’s just not done in France), and then booked myself a cabin on the train to Portugal.

I’ll never forget my train ride. The trip was 25hrs from Paris to Portugal, and there was only one other person in my cabin. She was an older woman from Toulouse, and she didn’t speak any language other than French! I learned two incredibly important things on that train ride. 1) Non-Parisians are generally very kind people. 2) When traveling alone, you can keep silent and be incredibly bored. Or you can open your mouth at the risk of making a fool of yourself, and you’ll probably have a great time and make friends.

cathedral-toulouseI spoke for hours on end with the lady from Toulouse. She told me about her city, its saints and pilgrimages. I asked her about life in the countryside vs. life in the city. I determined that Parisians aren’t purposefully pretending they don’t understand you. They’re just very impatient and usually can’t be bothered to make an effort if your French is less than perfect. My 4 years of high school French had paid off. I could make myself understood and I could understand. I was happy!

I arrived in Portugal, in the city of Coimbra. It’s a beautiful, historic city, situated along the river and very hilly. It’s not very big, but it’s a college town, so it’s full of life. I was in my early 20s, so I fit right in. And when my hostel kicked me out at midday (they do that so they can clean the rooms undisturbed), I found a big window with a bench-like window sill at the university and I took a nap!

Coimbra004

Mundo dos Pequenitos in Coimbra

In Coimbra, I discovered one of the coolest places in Portugal. It is a place that has inspired me, and perhaps even defined me. It’s called Portugal dos Pequenitos (Portugal of the Little Ones). It is a cross between a theme park and a museum.

There are tiny versions of palaces, castles, monuments and homes. Some of the monuments in the park are traditional buildings or art that you’d find around the world. African statues, Asian palaces, etc. But they aren’t there because someone was trying to copy Disneyland. They are there as reminders of all the lands that the Portuguese explored and conquered.

Mundo dos Pequenos in Coimbra, Portugal

Mundo dos Pequenitos in Coimbra, Portugal

Coimbra002-light

Mundo dos Pequenitos
in Coimbra, Portugal

At the entrance to the park there is a map of the world, with the routes of all the Portuguese explorers… Magellan, Henry the Navigator, Vasco de Gama, and others. Above it there is a phrase. It reads, “And if there were more world, we would go there.” I was in such awe of those men and that phrase. The only reason they hadn’t done/seen more of the world was because they’d seen all of it. I believe it is the ultimate embodiment of “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.”

That phrase has affected me profoundly. Over the years it became my goal in life, to keep seeing and exploring the world until I was “done”. Until there was no world left to explore.

On a subtler note, this little theme park gave me my first taste of Africa. Later on, in Lisbon, I’d discover Moroccan art, which would become a lifelong favorite.

Tribal Dance Necklace Click here to view on my Etsy Shop

Tribal Dance Necklace
Click here to view on my Etsy Shop

Though it certainly wasn’t Disneyland, Portugal dos Pequenitos taught me that It’s A Small World After All, and just like those explorers, all I had to do was… Go there!

P.S. I’m not done writing about Portugal, but I’ll leave it for another day. Meanwhile, feel free to sing a happy tune. 😀

Sing on Saturday – Legendary Fela Kuti and His Legacy

Sing on Saturday brings you a song or two from around the world every Saturday. Fela Kuti was a Nigerian musician, composer and human rights activist. He was the pioneer of Afrobeat, and a great showman, who has been called “the James Brown of Africa”. He contracted the AIDS virus and died in 1997, but his legacy lives on through the music of his sons Seun and Femi Kuti, and through the musical “Fela!”, inspired by his life and work.

Tribal Dance Necklace Click here to view on my Etsy Shop

Tribal Dance Necklace $35
Click here to view on Etsy Shop

ArtsyGenius travels the world in search of beauty, and brings back a tiny piece of it for making jewelry. Here is one of our items inspired by travels…

For more on Fela Kuti, visit http://www.fela.net

For more on Seun Kuti, visit http://www.seunkuti.com

For more on Femi Kuti, visit http://www.femikuti.tv

Fela

Fela Kuti

Seun Kuti

Femi Kuti

Sing on Saturday – Happy and Soulful African Acoustics

Sing on Saturday brings you a song or two from around the world every Saturday. Blk Sonshine is the result of two “Black Sons” coming together to shine. Malawian-born Masauko Chipembere and South-African Neo Muyanga perform acoustic jazz that is infectiously happy and soulfully inspiring.

Handpainted Butterfly

Handpainted Butterfly – Inspired by the beauty of the Amazons

ArtsyGenius travels the world in search of beauty, and brings back a tiny piece of it for making jewelry. Here is one of our items inspired by travels…

Blk Sonshine

Blk Sonshine

For more on Blk Sonshine, visit blksonshine.wordpress.com
You can also view their FB page at
www.facebook.com/blksonshinemusic

Avoid Getting Eaten by Lions

ImageI was driving around by myself in South Africa’s Kruger park, taking photographs of the wildlife when I came across two lions. I rolled down my window and started taking photos with my SLR. Since an SLR requires you to hold the camera to your eye and look through the viewfinder, I couldn’t see the lions directly, only through the lens. The lions were about 300 feet away from me when I first saw them, so I zoomed in to the max to get a good closeup. I began tracking one of them as he moved, and I’d zoom out as he got a bit closer. After a few minutes, I realized I was zooming out a lot and the lion must be quite close to me. I pulled the camera away from my face and found myself about 10 feet away from the lion, including the space taken up by my passenger seat. My passenger window was rolled down, so there was nothing between me and the lion except air. “Did I look like lion food?”, I wondered. I knew that if the lion was planning to attack me, he could jump ten feet much quicker than the speed at which I’d be able to reach across to my passenger seat and roll up my window. There was nothing to keep me from being lion food, other than the lion’s lack of hunger or disinterest. I decided that panic would do nothing for me, so I might as well keep taking great closeups even if I was about to die.

The lion got closer and closer, and then the most marvelous thing happened. He came inches away from my passenger door, and then suddenly plopped himself on the grass and proceeded to take a nap! He lay there purring like a kitten and he looked so sweet that I was tempted to reach my arm out and pet him. I’ve touched lions before, in wildlife sanctuaries. Those lions are still wild, but they’re well fed and not likely to attack you if you don’t upset them, but this lion was the king of his jungle and I was just potential lion food. But there he was, so calm, and I really wanted to touch him. He wasn’t even hungry!

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI was prevented from following my desire by a little factoid in the back of my head. “Lions are cats.” Maybe he wouldn’t eat me, but if I dangled my skinny arm like a piece of string in front of the giant sleeping kitty, and he happened to wake up, he’d probably swat at the string the way kittens swat at yarn. So though it would be awesome, having the big cat swat at me out of curiosity might mean the loss of my arm, which I need for driving, holding a spoon, and stuff like that. So I watched him a good while, and decided to keep my arm for another day. Not to mention the rest of me, which I’m quite fond of. But next time I get a chance, I’m going to pet another lion. They feel just like stiff carpets! And if I’m lucky, I won’t get eaten then either.